HOLLAND — Children who attend the Little Hawks Discovery Preschool often get an insider’s view of their environment simply by getting outside.
On Dec. 6, the preschoolers participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new $1 million building that will triple the size of the existing school operation, which is located on property owned by the Outdoor Discovery Center nature preserve.
The expansion is necessary to keep pace with the demand, said Travis Williams, executive director of the 150-acre Outdoor Discovery Center, located at 4214 56th Street in Holland.
When the school opened in 2013, it enrolled 54 students, but enrollment increased to 78 students for the 2016-2017 school year — the maximum number of students the preschool could accommodate.
“When we did it that first year, we filled the program in a couple of months,” Williams said. “In the second year, we filled it the night of registration, and in January of this year we had to turn more than 200 people away. We thought it would be popular, but we didn’t know how quickly it would become that popular.”
The preschool initially launched in a renovated building adjacent to the site of where it broke ground on the new facility, which will include a mudroom, offices and playground area.
GMB Architecture + Engineering designed the facility, for which GDK Construction Co. is serving as the general contractor. CL Construction Inc. of Holland is handling the build out.
Private donations will cover the cost of construction of the 5,000-square-foot building, which is expected to be ready for occupancy in September 2017 with the capacity to serve more than 170 students.
In addition to Ottawa County, students come from lakeshore communities including Grand Haven and South Haven. Enrollment options span from one day to four days per week with annual tuition ranging from $600 to $2,500. Williams said at any given time, between 30 and 50 percent of the preschool’s students receive financial aid or scholarships.
The preschool became a reality three years ago when Hamilton Community Schools Superintendent David Tebo expressed an interest in offering a preschool option. He spearheaded a partnership in 2013 between the school system and the Outdoor Discovery Center, which laid the foundation for Little Hawks.
Until July when the Outdoor Discovery Center took full ownership and management of the preschool, the school district ran the program and leased the property from the center.
“We weren’t at that time in the business of running a school,” Williams said.
Tebo said the partnership made sense because the Outdoor Discovery Center has a parallel mission to the school system.
“We both are focused on sharing our passions for helping others learn about the world around them,” Tebo said. “While their mission is focused on the environment, they want to expose people to the natural world and I believe that is more important than ever in today’s fast-paced, tech-focused world.”
Tebo said this type of learning environment gives students the chance to develop their curiosity and creativity.
“They are learning at an early age to love to be outside and to engage in the world around them,” he said. “The learning is authentic and engaging.”
The establishment of Little Hawks was a natural progression for the Outdoor Discovery Center, which was founded in 2000 by a nonprofit called Wildlife Unlimited for Allegan and Ottawa Counties, a group formed in 1983 to work on conservation and wildlife-related projects. In 1996, Wildlife Unlimited pursued the creation of an educational outdoor experience that offered people an opportunity to connect with their surroundings.
The conservation group established a partnership with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District that led to the creation of the nonprofit Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway. The greenway encompasses 175 square miles throughout nine townships and two cities in Allegan and Ottawa counties.
“We wanted to create some kind of place where school groups, community organizations and the general public could interact in the outdoors,” Williams said. “The ODC was really built on a platform of connecting people with the outdoors.”
In addition to outdoor education and conservation, the Outdoor Discovery Center also has a business line called Conservation Services that provides land management services on its own property as well as to partners including the cities of Holland and Zeeland and Holland Township. The work encompasses invasive species removal and habitat improvement.
Peter Haines, the superintendent of OAISD, said the Outdoor Discovery Center provides relevance for his students and nurtures their sense of responsibility in the world around them.
“Children are learning key content objectives through study in a natural environment, rather than an abstract and formal structure,” Haines said. “Some students, who might otherwise disengage with learning, can thrive in this setting. Early investment in the establishment of ODC was a clear win for the children we serve.”
Numerous research studies have highlighted the importance of exposure to the outdoors for children.
“There’s a lot of research that says if we want kids to develop as a whole person, they need more interaction and time outside,” Williams said. “Parents understand that the best thing for a 3- and 4-year-old child is not sitting in the classroom.”
The majority of the preschool’s class time occurs outside. Students spend time learning in natural play spaces that include sand, rocks, water features, trees, logs and sticks.
“The difference between us and other preschools is that most of the kids’ learning time is spent outside,” Williams said. “They learn how to read maps and walk the trails. … When they’re actively doing it, all of the research shows that’s the best way for kids to learn.”
A new play area — one part of the expansion plans — will increase these outdoor learning spaces to two acres. Williams said Little Hawks intentionally left out traditional school playground equipment because it has been shown to increase aggressive behaviors and bullying.
“These natural play spaces encourage imaginative play,” he said. “A lot of learning is done through more of a play structure using a creative curriculum.”
Williams said he increasingly is receiving requests from schools and organizations interested in developing ways to form connections with the outdoors.
“We can’t serve everybody, but we can provide some support to get other schools to do it,” Williams said. “Everything we do goes back to education and preserving and protecting land and water.”